Lars Von Trier's new film "Melancholia" is unforgettable. But then so was "Antichrist," his last film. In that one, Charlotte Gainsbourg played an angry wife who maimed her husband's genitalia and caused him to ejaculate blood. You don't forget a thing like that though I have no doubt it contributed mightily to its not playing here.
The Danish director's "Melancholia" had no such impediment, but I can still imagine the film causing people as much anger as Terrence Malick's masterpiece "The Tree of Life" and for similar reasons. Just as "The Tree of Life" was cinematic poetry rather than conventional cinematic narrative (leading viewers who expected the latter to think a condescending trick was being played on them), "Melancholia" represents a new kind of science-fiction tale: intimate apocalypse.
We saw something very vaguely like it before with Brit Marling and Mike Cahill's movie "Another Earth." "Melancholia," on the other hand, is telling you a story about nothing less than the End of the World through the lives of some wealthy people surrounded by love and beauty and sumptuous privilege.
The movie is presented in three sections -- a wordless prologue guaranteed to infuriate many in which we inexplicably switch back and forth between the cosmos and a golf course and Brueghel's "Return of the Hunters" and a bride sprinting in slow-motion while the famous music from Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" plays on the soundtrack. It turns out the prologue is merely giving you a precis of the tale you are about to see -- the poet's "argument" as it were before the poem by Blake or Coleridge.
The actual story is in two parts, titled minimalistically "Justine" and "Claire," after the two sisters in the center. You must admit that's a rather casual way to structure a story about the literal end of the world.
The tale is this: There's a planet, which has been named Melancholia that is expected by experts to be a "fly by," but is predicted by a distinctly radical and troublesome minority of scientists to be headed straight for earth. Its approach causes all manner of radical changes in people's behavior. Allegory doesn't come much bigger.
"Justine" is about the eponymous beauty's wedding, which has to be accounted as one of the most miserable ever. The bride is struggling mightily with depression. So she wanders around the golf course managed by her brother-in-law who hosted the party. The wedding guests are otherwise sweatily occupied doing what it is that wedding guests do -- getting sauced and loud and happy. The bride (Kirsten Dunst) relieves herself on a putting green and, later, has sex with another wedding guest in a sand trap.
That, by the way, is after she has spurned her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard), who is understandably eager to remove her yards of wedding dress and get down to conjugal business. She keeps lapsing into depression though -- so bad that at one point, she removes herself entirely and has a bath.
Meanwhile, her divorced mother and father -- John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling -- are each behaving wretchedly in opposite ways and her sister and brother-in-law (Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland) are trying to maintain some semblance of nuptial order.
Then we see the story of Justine's sister Claire. And the world ends.
But not before Justine has become so depressed that she can barely lift a leg up over the bathtub to climb in. When sister Claire (Gainsbourg) makes her some meat loaf, hoping that glorious comfort food smell will cheer her up, Justine declares after one mouthful that it tastes like ashes.
What follows are some gorgeously filmed aerial views of horseback riding and the depressive Justine getting paradoxically stronger and tougher as the planet named Melancholia approaches and the sister and brother-in-law fall apart.
A moment of vile moral cowardice precedes planetary atmospheres merging violently and worlds in collision as if Immanuel Velikovsky, prophet of cosmic cataclysm, had written the script.
A visionary film of great virtuosity to be sure.
But neither a masterpiece nor a great one, it seems to me, for all the utter unforgettability of the ending. Both Dunst and Gainsbourg are exceptional -- especially Dunst, who won Best Actress at Cannes for the film and revealed that she has, quite literally, struggled with clinical depression and been hospitalized for it. The cinematography by Maniel Alberto Claro is among the year's best.
But the finale is as frustrating as it is memorable. The world ends in a murderous rain of both cosmic dust and familial love. And other than remembering it, how are we to take that?
What if an allegory cancels itself out? Completely?
3 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard
DIRECTOR: Lars Von Trier
RUNNING TIME: 135 minutes
RATING: R for language, sex and nudity.
THE LOWDOWN: A planet called Melancholia is headed for Earth and causing people to behave in strange ways.